Could you direct me to Poo-yallup?


“Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.” (Judges 12:6)

That particular biblical verse gave rise to the general concept of a shibboleth, a word, sound, or custom that a person unfamiliar with its significance may not pronounce or perform correctly relative to those who are familiar with it. (Wikipedia)

Ever since ancient times, pronunciation has been a pretty accurate way of determining whether a person is a local or not. During World War II, the Dutch used Scheveningen to weed out German infiltrators, and Americans in the Pacific used lollapalooza to challenge unknown persons, knowing that the Japanese have a difficult time with the sounds of L and R.


Quincy Market and Fanueil Hall, Boston

A Bostonian doesn’t need to be a Henry Higgins to know that someone who speaks of “fan-you-ale” Hall isn’t a local. Bostonians pronounce it “fan’l” or “fany’l” (/ˈfænəl/ or /ˈfænjəl/, if you are familiar with IPA). Of course, Bostonians have a strange way of speaking altogether, but we won’t hold that against them.

When we moved to the Pacific Northwest back in 1980, we encountered a whole ‘notha set of odd pronunciations than the ones we had learned as Utahns (more about that in a bit.) See, the name of that town up there is “pyoo-ALLUP” (/pjuːˈæləp/). “Pend Oreille” County kept the French pronunciation – it’s closer to “ponderAY” than “pen-DOR-ial,” which I have heard more than once. But strange pronunciations of local names are found all over – Natchitoches, Louisiana is pronounced “NAK-i-tesh” (/ˈnækɨtəʃ/) instead of “natchi-TOE-chez”.

Since I’m basically a Utah boy at this point (although my heart is still rooted firmly in Manhattan Island), we’ve gotten used to our own share of odd place names:

  • Tooele – Not “TOOL-y”, but “too-ILL-a” (/tuːˈɪlə/)
  • Hurricane – This is pronounced “HER-kin” by the locals, to rhyme with “Laverkin.”
  • Mantua – Unlike the city in Italy, this is pronounced “MAN-away” (/ˈmænəweɪ/)

A delightful tribute to some of the odd names found in Utah is below – a buddy of mine in Australia, although he has never set foot in America, can recite this almost by heart.

Thanks to Phantomdiver, a list of Virginia place names, prompted by the pronunciation of McGaheysville (mi-GACK’-eez-vill), and here’s an article about place names in Maine.


Apparently “Calais,” not on the list above, is pronounced like those hard spots that develop on your hands and feet (“callus”).

Click through for a much larger list of place names in the USA that have counter-intuitive pronunciations; there is also a list which covers other countries as well.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

7 responses to “Could you direct me to Poo-yallup?

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